November 27, 2015 1:57:11 am
AFTER STRUGGLING for four years in Kota to crack the engineering entrance exam, his mind “clogged by all the study”, the pressure building from home, it didn’t take long for this 20-year-old from Muzaffarpur in Bihar to find an escape route.
“We call it Babaji ki booti,” he said, speaking on the condition that his name be withheld. “My seniors introduced me to this (cannabis). It gives me so much relief, I am able to concentrate better on my studies.”
It’s not just the rising number of suicides — 24 this year — that’s worrying experts and police in Kota, home to over 300 coaching institutes where nearly 1.5 lakh students are put through a punishing academic grind for admission in a coveted medical or engineering course.
What’s equally alarming, they say, is how schoolchildren are uprooted from their comfort zones and transplanted in a system designed for adults with fault lines they are not equipped to deal with — Hindi vs English, city vs village, rich vs poor. And how this pressure and the fear of failure push hundreds of them into a vicious cycle of drugs, petty crimes and gangs with names such as Bihar Tigers and Haryana Force.
“Some students are so stressed that they stage fake abductions of themselves before an exam. There have been four-five such cases in the last two years, and in all of them the students later said they feared the wrath of their parents and teachers if they failed,” said Assistant Commandant Bhagwat Singh Hingadh, the former in-charge of Jawahar Nagar Police Station that covers most of the coaching hubs.
“Then there are the gangs formed by students who get into petty squabbles. A majority of the cases are about mobile and cycle thefts by students from poor backgrounds who form gangs to commit these crimes. But we try and solve these cases without filing official complaints to protect the future of these youngsters,” Hingadh said.
Drugs at the paan shop
The first stop on this route, say students, is usually drugs.
“Cannabis and smack are easily available at most paan shops. The seniors who supply them are also aspirants who have come to Kota after completing their Class 12 years ago. They are now seen by many younger students from smaller towns as mentors,” said the 20-year-old engineering aspirant.
“We are from small states and towns, and do not mix with students from Delhi or Mumbai who show a lot of attitude. Our seniors have formed groups like Bihar Tigers and Haryana Force to help us if we get into trouble,” said Rohan Tripathi, an AIIMS aspirant from Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.
But there is a catch, he added. “If you take help from the bhaiyas (brothers), they expect you to come and join their fights. So I try and maintain my distance,” said Rohan.
According to Samir Parikh, director of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences at Fortis Healthcare, this trend is natural and arises from the pressure to perform.
“Some people cannot function in such an alien environment. Ideally, they shouldn’t be here and should be told about a plan B in life. These students desperately look for support and finding solace in gangs… and drugs is natural,” he said.
Paying a heavy price
Most students The Indian Express spoke to in Kota said they feel “weighed down” by the fact that their parents have invested so much in their education.
“My parents never directly speak about money, but they often say ‘beta, ek baar mein nikaalna hai (you have to clear the exams in one attempt),” said Prateek Motwani, a 16-year-old from Raipur in Madhya Pradesh, who has been living in Kota for the last year, preparing for the IIT entrance exams.
Police officers say the “almost inhuman atmosphere” in Kota adds to the stress. “From dawn to dusk, the student is fleeced for every service, which can be very taxing for a young mind,” said a senior officer at Jawahar Nagar Police Station, who did not wish to be named.
According to students, the tuition fee for a two-year coaching course is Rs 1 lakh — and that’s just the beginning.
“You have to pay Rs 3,000 per month for a small room and that can go up to Rs 25,000 for a flat. There are multi-cuisine tiffin services and then there is the mess that serves watery dal. These mess services just want your money, the food is pathetic,” said Prateek.
Burdened with long class-hours and post-class studies, the few entertainment options, too, come at a price, say students.
“The cyber cafes and gaming zones near the coaching area charge anything between Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000 a month, a price too steep for students from smaller towns. Many of our friends go to these places but we can’t afford them,” said Abhilash Sharma, a student from Motihari in Bihar.
Given the lack of internet services in most private hostels and the high charges levied by cyber cafes, some students have found a cheaper option. At 7 pm, after class-hours, The Indian Express found scores of students in Jawahar Nagar glued to their mobile phones near a new cellphone tower run by Reliance, which was testing its 4G service, to download free movies and TV serials.
“I come here once a week to download some free TV serials on a smartphone borrowed from my friend,” said Sharma.
Then, there are the restrictions imposed by institutes that push students further into a corner.
“WhatsApp and Facebook have made things worse. These are distractions, and we have curbed their use,” said a counsellor at a leading coaching institute.
It’s not just phones, boys and girls in the coaching centres are not encouraged to interact, either. So much so, that there are separate pathways for them to exit after classes. “If security guards see couples walking out of classrooms together, their phones are taken away and they are counselled,” said a student at Allen Career Institute, one of the big five coaching centres along with Resonance, Bansal, Vibrant and Career Point.
Within a 3km radius of the coaching hub, The Indian Express found boys and girls together only at one spot — McDonald’s at City Mall. On a typical evening, this outlet in Kota’s only mall is packed with students. But try having a conversation with them and they react cautiously. “Why do you want our names? Are you from the institute?” asked one girl student. Said another, “Please don’t inform anyone about this, we promise we will return to our hostels by 8pm.”
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